This article is taken from the April 2021 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.
How long is it since Terence Rant began to play a starring role in the intellectual debates of his day? Alas, he was still an undergraduate when F.R. Leavis and C.P. Snow were taking sides about the Two Cultures, and the arguments about Pop Poetry coincided with the final year of his PhD, but come the early 1970s he was as fixed and unshakable part of the cultural firmament as Clive James’s television reviews or Play for Today.
His attack on the Shakespearian critic Professor Sidgwick in which he accused the venerable scholar of “having a tin ear” and “not knowing what the hell he was talking about” caused a sensation. The ensuing correspondence ran in the New Statesman for nearly two months.
Even at this early stage, Rant’s contributions to literary magazines — he had dropped the Terence and become plain “Terry Rant” — were distinguished by a refusal to pull his punches, often lapsing into outright incivility. His celebrated review of a Kingsley Amis novel in which he described Amis as “an overweight imbecile sustained for too long by the misguided indulgence of his peers” attracted a libel writ. He more than once came to blows with fellow critics at parties. Not surprisingly, reviewers tended to treat his own books — a ferocious assault on contemporary poetry entitled Twilight Barking and Cunning Stunts, a pugnacious justification of pornography — with nervous respect.
Under the moniker of @truthseeker Rant has been having a tremendous time attacking the Booker Prize
There was, as even Rant’s defenders and the editors who printed his columns agreed, something almost pathological about his approach. It was, said an agent whose Nobel-winning client he had likened to “a cow trying to fire a musket”, as if “something comes over him whenever he sees a blank sheet of paper.” Rant was unrepentant. “There’s a great deal of crap out there which nobody seems to have noticed,” he once remarked, in a famous Observer profile. “Great steaming piles of it, and it’s my job to make sure that there’s a whole lot less.”
The same profile obligingly listed some career highlights: the arm-wrestling bout with the late Christopher Hitchens; a televised spat on the subject of organised religion with A.C. Grayling (in which Terry’s long-professed atheism was suddenly abandoned for a vigorous defence of the Anglican tradition); and the notorious occasion on which, phoning into a Front Row symposium on the state of the arts from a BBC studio in Berkshire he refused to be silenced and bayed on unappeasably into the ether until the producer shut down the line.
A 50-year diehard of the literary scene now, grey-haired and somewhat frail, Rant has lost none of his fervour. Only last Christmas he told readers of the Spectator’s books pages that a highly distinguished biographer was “a complete arse” who “deserves a kick up the backside”.
Oddly, the modern age seems less forgiving of these interventions. Rant gets fewer commissions now, and it has been suggested that for a man of 78 to lose his temper in public quite so regularly is faintly undignified.
Still, there is always Twitter and under the moniker of @truthseeker Rant has been having a tremendous time attacking the Booker Prize, modern poetry, the TLS and other no doubt deserving targets. When not engaged in controversy, he lives quietly in an obscure provincial town with a meek wife whom no one has ever seen and is very fond of his cats.
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